by Janet Hudgins
My father, Jack, was a creature of nature. His best friend in his youth was Mi’kmaq Louis Jeremy, and they spent their free time ice-sailing the Annapolis River, building canoes and hunting. Jack’s mother and sisters knew everything about birds and plant life and Louis knew everything about wood lore. The natural world was common to their vernacular. My aunt managed a subsistence farm for she and my grandmother a few hundred yards from the main house on the family grant, circa 1783, (now both restored by my family), and she had a particular affinity for migrating birds. I remember she rescued a thrush from one of her Manx cats and kept the flightless bird in a cage in the kitchen window. I took a dislike to cages.
Jack loved trees, especially conifers soughing in the wind. Managing a nursery owned by a Danish Jew who had escaped just before World War II and had quietly found his way to our little hamlet, he had access to all manner of trees. Before my time he set out a windbreak of Scots pines along the southwest side of our house that kept us sheltered winter and summer. Now an invasive species, it was a welcome import from Europe then and it hosted a chorus of tiny birds: juncos, chickadees, finches and sparrows. Jack could whistle up birds, but Meg, my mother, was a better caller. And he knew how wildlife passed through the seasons, how the numbers were increasing, or not, and pretty much who was doing the most damage – usually the government that always seemed to fail to halt hunting or trapping a species until it was too late. Jack rarely fished but always hunted and sometimes guided Americans who, to his great amusement, invariably appeared in loafers and slacks.
So, I was familiar with wild life and had little natural fear of anything in the animal kingdom because no one taught me to be and I was sworn to respect nature. I don’t remember the why, just the order. Meg, neither squealing nor complaining, carefully carried the annual mouse nest in the kitchen of our hunting camp out to a comfortable spot beside the shed where I could watch them grow.
One day one of Jack’s cronies came by to talk guns. He brought a Winchester .22 Long Shot with him and Jack was immediately taken. “That’s just the thing for Janey,” he said. “I’ll cut it down to fit her and she can come hunting with me.” He spent endless evening hours sanding the fresh-cut hard walnut carved to fit my shoulder, filing the barrel and resetting the sights. I had not been consulted but, just as my mother had when he bought her a shotgun that mercilessly kicked her in the shoulder, I would please my father. And then he decided I would need breeks, a mackinaw and knee-high leather boots. I was nine years old, small for my age, and none of these things were made in my size. I never knew where he got them but they were considered to fit, more or less, and I would grow into them.
The next level of gunship for me was target practice and I dutifully lined up with “the men,” who came by with their weapons, to take turns aiming at the bull’s eye in the basement. Drilling over the first winter, I nearly always hit the black dot and Jack had bragging rights about his little girl. I was well disciplined in the cardinal rules now: never point a weapon at any living thing, never ever drop the gun when climbing over a fence, pick it up on the other side, keep it pointed downward and well secured under my arm, safety on, finger off. By autumn, when I was ten, my success in the rifle range determined it was time to advance to a 32-40 Winchester rifle, which he again patiently whittled into my size. This was for big game.
We went to the camp, Jack and I, for the hunting season. The first day out he spotted a partridge hen sitting in an old apple tree where there had once been a small settlement. I couldn’t see her, she sat so still and blended so well. But Jack kept nodding his head in her direction until I did. And I froze. I couldn’t even raise the rifle to my shoulder. He moved slowly and quietly up beside me and nudged my rifle arm. “Fire,” he said out of the side of his mouth. I came to and began to raise my arm but I was too slow. “Fire,” he said, this time with some urgency. I brought the gun somewhere near my shoulder and now entirely out of patience, Jack bellowed. “FIRE, DAMMIT, FIRE.” My reflexes jerked, the gun discharged, and the bird’s head left its body. It was my first and last kill.
For years after that this was one of Jack’s favorite hunting stories. “Janey’s a crack shot, you know. I bought her a lovely little gun and she blew the head off a partridge when she was ten years old.” But he always neglected to mention that it was not bird season, that the bird was not in flight and that the lovely little gun was not the requisite shotgun.
When the rifles were no longer functional because no ammunition was made for them, I registered them anyway when it was called for, then gave them to my son who doesn’t know what became of them. That’s not a bad end for lethal weapons.